At 11:06 a.m. on Thursday Feb. 13, Langston University and NASA signed an International Space Station payload agreement. Langston University has partnered with Johnson Space Center to develop natural countermeasures—through extracts from plants—that will help to restore astronauts’ immune systems in space flight conditions. Immune system dysregulation has been found to reactivate multiple latent viruses, such as chickenpox, in astronauts during space shuttle missions. The researchers at Langston University have found a way to naturally treat this through the use of medicinal phytochemicals found in plant extracts that will enhance the immune system during space flight missions and reverse the effects of microgravity on the human immune system. These medicinal plant extracts may play an important role in restoring immune function in astronauts on NASA’s planned missions to the moon and ultimately to Mars. The target date to launch the payload on the International Space Station is August 2020.
This research, led by Dr. Byron Quinn, Director of the Langston University NASA Advanced Research in Biology Center, is funded by the NASA Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) Institutional Research Opportunity (MIRO). NASA sponsored a $4.9 million grant to the Science Research Institute located at Langston University to assist with the Mission to Mars.
“This is a very historic day for Langston University,” Dr. Byron Quinn, dur ing the opening remarks, said. “This ceremony is our first payload that we will be sending, of this type, to the international space station and this is the first time we’ve had a visit from the NASA administrator.”
Dr. Kent J. Smith, Jr., President of Langston University, introduced NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and remarked that a university like Langston does not have an opportunity on a regular basis to have the NASA Administrator on its campus and Bridenstine changed his schedule schedule and decided this signing agreement was important enough for him to pay a personal visit to Langston University.
Bridenstine has ties to Oklahoma and before joining NASA, served in the U.S. Congress representing Oklahoma’s First Congressional District, serving on the Armed Services Committee and the Science, Space and Technology Committee.
“We’ve been engaged in this activity since 2015 and I want to be really clear, the research that will be done here at Langston University is going to have transformational capabilities for space exploration for the United States of America and all of our international partners around the world,” Bridenstine said.
Bridenstine said that a couple of things that are important to note when you’re in space, your immune system begins to get degraded, and you might have a virus you’re carrying that you aren’t aware of because your immune system is depressing it; sometimes it can creep up.
“You don’t want to get sick when you’re on the International Space Station, or even worse, on your way to Mars for the next seven months,” Bridenstine said. “You don’t want to get sick in that period of time because it becomes really difficult to get rid of that illness in space. What we’re doing is creating countermeasures. How do we figure out how to make sure that the immune system doesn’t get degraded?
We’ve been learning the effects of being on the International Space Station for a long time, now we need to figure out what the countermeasures are. This is very serious research that is going to enable us as a nation and all of our international partners to do bigger and better things in space.”
Bridenstine said while the payloads are teaching us a lot about space, they also have potential tremendous and life improving effects on Earth. Currently, International Space Stations are already able to create pharmaceuticals, immunizations, advanced materials such as artificial retinas to treat macular degeneration and 3D printing of human organs that we can’t create here on earth because of the microgravity of space.
Dr. Brian Crucian is Johnson Space Center’s lead scientist for NASA’s Immunology research, which focuses on changes to an astronaut’s immune system during spaceflight, as well as developing countermeasures to help mitigate the clinical risks for astronauts during longduration missions. Crucian said the Langston MIRO is one of the first projects that will target the development of specific immunological countermeasures to restore function to astronauts during space travel.
“I wish to congratulate Dr. Quinn, faculty and students at Langston for their success in achieving the opportunity to translate one of their ground experiments to space flight,” Crucian said. “We’re now going to swap in their experiment, that model of microgravity, for the actual microgravity of space flight… we look forward to seeing their results, which will help inform and keep the next man and first woman on the moon safe.”
Crucian also noted that what’s important about [the medicinal plant extracts] is that it’s almost like a drug discovery.
“They’re not looking at things off the shelf, they’re actually looking at bioactive compounds that are known to support immune health and then they’re trying to pull out the relevant molecules and packages those as a medication. All the way from idea to discovery to deep space is the project. It’s very exciting.”
Discussing the immune payloads they are sending up to the space station, Quinn said due to the partnership with Nanoracks and NASA, they’ll be able to do this experiment and see if they can recover full or close to full activation of immune cells on the International Space Station.
“This will give us a full scale experiment so we can determine whether or not these medicinal plant extracts will reactivate these cells.”
Quinn also said in terms of the Artemis Program, which was to go back to the moon and then from the moon to Mars, their particular ground setup allows them to study not only space flight but sustaining human life on the moon plus on Mars.
According to Quinn, the payload agreement also presents opportunities for Logan County. Bridenstine spoke about the industrialization of space, or really the new space industry, and since Langston is on the forefront of this, there could be companies and products that are developed in Logan County.
“I think that the implications are pretty huge,” Quinn said. “What the administrator was talking about, the industrialization of space, really the industry, space stations. That’s a whole new industry that’s kind of starting up here and we’re on the biomedical side of it looking at the development of things. The things that we’re developing as industry goes into space, these could be companies and products that are being developed in Logan County.”